Slave to gravity
A grey shroud of fog rose from the bottom of his line of vision. He was aware of a sensation of pressure but was sure he wasn't lying down. Against the backdrop of mist, vertical black and white lines appeared, jerking up and down like epileptic pinstripes. His heart was beating like some enraged beast trying to break out of its pen. He could feel it but couldn't hear it. In fact he heard nothing, not even white noise. It had to be another of his nightmares. It would pass, like the tide retreating.
A hornet's nest of interference suddenly assaulted his ears - and then there were words, fading in and out.
"... should have connected the auditory feed first .... re-orientation shock .... Incompetence ...... can't afford to lose him now."
They were voices he didn't recognise. Where was Catherine? He remembered her giving him his bed bath and making him comfortable before retiring to her room.
"... ought to reboot ... engage basic cognitive module..... Do not connect vision facility yet...." The voices seemed close but modulated, as if transmitted underwater.
An impenetrable cloak of blackness descended, accompanied by a falling saw-tooth note. Immediately his vision returned. He was floating amongst clouds, allochroous as they shifted from one to another.
"Professor," said a gentle voice (he could not ascertain whether male or female). "Can you hear us?"
"I can hear. Yes," he heard himself say. Yet he could not feel any sensation of lips moving or larynx reverberating.
"This is hard for you to experience, we know. Much harder for you to even understand. But please bear with us."
He heard whispering in the mid-distance, and then; "You are with friends, Professor. But you are in a place and time you have never encountered before. We are now going to feed a culture and history module through your brain. This will lead you through the salient details of what happened to both you and the world you knew."
An imago of realisation emerged in his mind. "Am I in .... Heaven?"
"No, Professor. But neither are you in Hell - you will be pleased to know. This process will take forty eight hours real time, but the minutes will seem to pass much more quickly for you. Don't worry, when the module is finished you will be in a much better state for us to answer your questions. Now brace yourself, the startup sequence can be disorientating somewh..."
A roaring hurricane cut off the speaker's words in his non-existent ears as he was hurled through a gap in the cumulus. Pixels of light grew bigger and coalesced into a succession of images. Dioramas of history played out in an accelerated cinematograph before his confounded senses.
He recognised himself walking through Cambridge, locking himself away in his room at Woolsthorpe for months as he worked on laws of optics and developing calculus. Lectures at the Royal Society, the publication of his Principia, his traumatic disagreements with Leibniz over suspected plagiarism. These milestones in his life passed in an instant.
Time rolled forward with the increasing momentum of a flywheel, revealing scenes he had never witnessed. He saw the rise and fall of nations, like ephemera on a hot Summer's day. Great heads of state led their countries into glory or ignominy, while lofty thinkers superseded his laws of motion with theories and mathematics he could barely grasp. He also saw mankind spread across the globe like a disease, polluting the biosphere with effluent.
As the disc kept turning he surveyed great cataclysms, and saw how small acts of human kindness averted disaster, both political and environmental. It was too much for him and he tried to turn away before the madness, familiar in its dreadfulness, threatened to unhinge him. As if sensing his imbalance, the shifting wisps of incorporeal cloud enveloped him again.
No sooner had he composed himself than he was propelled once again into his journey through time. Centuries merged into millennia, which in turn gave way to spans of time which beggared his imagination. Technology advanced and man travelled to stellar bodies he had predicted on paper, but never comprehended might become reality. He marvelled at the way in which scientific theory held the hand of its sister, technology, while together they walked a gilded road into the future.
Then it stopped abruptly.
The panorama of his consciousness melted like wax around him revealing a laboratory of sorts. A blue phosphorescence bathed two humanoid figures in its glow. Looking down at his outstretched arms (for he did indeed possess a body now), it was comforting to see he wore his favourite coat and shoes.
"Welcome, Professor," said the nearest humanoid. "My name is Gestalt, and this is my colleague, Zeitgeist."
The other humanoid stepped forward, and he stared into the face of a billion years into the future.
"Forgive us all that you have endured," said the one called Gestalt. "We can only imagine the disquiet this has caused."
"I am lost for words," said the professor. And, to be sure, he was. He found himself unable to even articulate what he felt.
"Come, sit down," Zeitgeist continued, his elongate face expressing, no, exuding empathy.He gestured towards a circular table of indeterminate material with a spider-fingered hand.
"Do not fear. The cephalo-neuroids we have administered during your immersion in the memory module will enable acclimatisation to your new state. The body you see is in fact an illusion."
"Then, what am I?" said the scientist, finding his voice once more.
Gestalt smiled with lips that spread to his ears. "Your brain exists in a nutritive solution which both feeds it and transmits the various stimuli from your surrounding environment. We have given you a voice based around the dialect prevalent in the early 21st century. Our own voices and language have been adjusted accordingly. We thought this the best balance to create an environment which allowed us to converse scientifically and, at the same time, bridge the cultural divide."
Gestalt blinked with eyelids which closed horizontally. "There may of course be terms which are untranslatable. The interpretation unit has a facility to transmit the nervous signals you would normally trigger for gesture, so that we can gauge subtle nuances. I believe this used to be called 'body language'. Please tell us if you don't understand."
The professor took a deep breath through imaginary lungs. "I understand your words, but their enormity is hard to take in. It has occurred to me that I may be experiencing a kind of lucid dream, or revelation."
"You mean like St. John the evangelist?" Zeitgeist said, lines appearing on his pale, domed forehead. He looked over at his colleague, who nodded. "Regrettably, you must surrender any notion of a supreme deity, Professor."
"Divorce myself from my creator?" he snapped. "I will never do such a thing!"
"We understand," replied Gestalt. "You are experiencing cognitive dissonance. This will be the hardest transformation you must undergo. Indeed, it was your strong faith which nearly de-railed our application for brain resuscitation to the supreme senate. But it is essential this happens if you are to help us."
Zeitgeist leaned forward. "Belief in supernatural forces and guiding spirits waned dramatically at the end of the 28th Century. In fact, it was accompanied by an unprecedented increase in man's progress in the sciences. Not as great as the period in which you lived however."
Sir Isaac felt the magma of incredulity rise within him, accompanied by what he could only describe as an unhitching sensation.
"Massive rise in activity of the pituitary and hypothalamus," said Zeitgeist, looking at a display to his right. "He needs time to adjust."
"Sir Isaac, we are closing you down for a period of time," said Gestalt. When you awaken you will feel much more settled."
It was as if he blinked. But when his imaginary eyelids opened to the sight of the two mentors again, he was calm.
"I know this is not a dream or a revelation," he stated flatly.
Zeitgeist glanced down. "Forgive us again. But we put you into deep sleep and ran a disinvestment program on you. We would have rather you shed your religious views of your own accord, but time is against us."
"The ethics committee didn't like it," continued Gestalt, "but we managed to bring them round. As it is, we have lost two years - it took that long for the synapses associated with deep-seated religious belief to be rebuilt."
"I feel I am but a mere animal you are manipulating for your own ends," he said, deflated.
"This troubles us," said Gestalt. "But our need is great."
"You said I could help you." he acquiesced. "At least you owe me that much explanation."
"Very well," said Zeitgeist. He rose to his feet and walked over to a screen which came to life automatically.
A fiery ball appeared in the centre, solar flares shooting from its surface. Then it arced back downward under its magnetic influence to die in an immense conflagration.
"This is a view of our sun as it was a mere 200,000 years ago," he began. "Today, as scientists of the 20th Century once predicted, the Sun is moving into the last stages of its evolution. It is about to lose a tremendous amount of mass through powerful stellar winds."
Before his eyes, the orange orb, bloated out into a gargantuan red giant.
Gestalt stood up. "As our sun diminishes, the planets will begin to spiral outwards. This will occur within the next six to seven billion years. Eventually, the expanding Sun will catch up and engulf the Earth just before it reaches the tip of the final phase."
"Then, there is plenty of time to make preparations," said Newton. "Your memory module explained that interplanetary travel has been the norm for millennia. Mankind could yet escape."
"This is true. Yet the populace has a curious 'attachment' to this humble ball of dirt. They want to preserve it. The problem is that the timescale is much shorter than you think. Earth's habitable zone is under threat. Astronomers have already calculated that the heating Sun is already evaporating the Earth’s oceans away. All that remains is for solar radiation to blast away the hydrogen from our water, and the planet will become nothing but a molten mass of lava."
The professor did some rapid mental calculations. "Then earth will be gone within the next million years."
"Yes, and our knowledge of the 21st century global warming episode tells us that even a few degrees change in average temperature can cause disproportionate effects. The biosphere is already suffering."
The screen showed images of desertification, forests retreating and countless species succumbing to climate belt shift.
"Our technology has, up to now, counteracted these perturbations, but they are proving to be insufficient."
As the screen went black, the two figures stood side by side. Newton could now see them in their full evolutionary glory. They were not clothed but their nakedness did not appear crude. There were, in fact, only subtle differences in proportion and shape to their bodies.
Zeitgeist was the more diminutive of the two yet he still stood a full two feet taller than himself. "The solution to our predicament requires a great thinker," he said finally. "If our technologies could be used to speed up the Earth’s inevitable spiraling outward from the Sun, we could perhaps take advantage of the new habitable zone which would exist within the Kuiper Belt. Liquid water would exist beyond the orbit of Pluto. We could survive!"
"But why me?" said the professor. "Your science and your technology are millennia ahead of my own."
Gestalt's angular shoulders slumped. "Alas, this requires new physics and novel mathematics. The evolutionary tree which unites us reached asymptote in your time. Our powers of thinking are in reality no greater than your own. In fact they are probably less. When an importunate pathologist chose to extract and preserve your brain upon death, he couldn't know that he was holding what we now know is the most remarkable collection of neurones in the history of mankind."
"As a young man, I would have preened at your compliments. But, as I have written before, I simply stood on the shoulders of giants."
"Well," smiled Zeitgeist. "We would have chosen Einstein, but his brain was destroyed in a museum fire in 2032."
Newton could not repress his mirth. "If I had ever thought that a German would use my work for greater glory then I would have burned my papers."
The professor folded his holographic arms and paused for thought.
"Gravity. It always comes back to gravity," he said. "It seems my work has enslaved me to the future."
"Will you help us?" said Gestalt.
"Do I have a choice?"
"You always have a choice, Sir Isaac. If you decline, we are obliged by the terms of the committee to give you freedom of existence - until the time you decide to be ... extinguished."
"Why would I choose that?"
"It would seem, despite the passage of time, humans are not equipped for immortality. The longest lifespan was recorded in Solar era 7042 when Joel Branham chose to be extinguished at the age of 969. Coincidentally, this was the same age achieved by the biblical character, Methuselah."
"Coincidentally?" said Newton. "I wonder. Despite my relinquishing of religious shackles I still regret that my alchemical studies did not lead to the discovery of the Philosopher's stone. I would have traded my life's work for such a find."
Zeitgeist put his hand on Newton's shoulder. "The philosopher's stone? A veritable stepping stone to the elixir of life. But, don't you see? You have already achieved immortality. Your life and works have stayed in our memories for close to a billion years."
Newton looked up into Zeitgeist's eyes. "There is wisdom in your words, my ... friend." He turned to Gestalt and said: "Yes. My expertise is yours to use."
"We are eternally grateful to you, Professor," said Gestalt, bowing almost reverently.
"We have much work to do," said Zeitgeist, then held up his hand. "Before we begin, there is one thing I have always wanted to know."
"Yes?" said the 18th century gentleman.
"Did the apple really fall on your head?"